Booknotes

Spring 2011

BOOKNOTES, the book review of THE ELLIOTT BAY BOOK COMPANY, is written entirely by bookstore staff. It represents a sampling of recently published and forthcoming books that we have enjoyed reading. We appreciate every opportunity to assist in finding books to meet your interests.

 

Fiction

Solo by Rana Dasgupta (Mariner)

Toward the end of a life lived too long, Ulrich daydreams about his early years in Bulgaria. Forbidden his true love of music, young Ulrich develops an obsession with chemistry and travels to Germany to study with a master. When his parents call him back to Sophia, he imagines that his creative life is over. But for us readers, this is where the magic begins. Through his fantasies, Ulrich explores the world of his repressed longings using as his avatar Boris, a childhood friend whose musical talent reflects Ulrich’s potential. In his second novel, Dasgupta creates a masterful and intricate web of meanings and connections within the vivid internal life of his protagonist. –Leighanne

 

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna (Atlantic Monthly Press)

This heartbreaking, absorbing story about love and the legacy of war raises deep questions about our ability to go on and to love again after losing those we love most. Set after the Sierra Leone Civil War of the 1990s, the novel’s characters include a young surgeon who lives with the consequences of what he has done for the love of an inaccessible woman, an elderly man who is finally ready to discuss his own betrayal of others, and a woman who, having lost her loved ones, must now endure more. The spare beauty of Forna’s prose makes these characters live on long after the last page is turned. –Karen

 

Toxicology by Jessica Hagedorn (Viking)

(Available April 14, 2011)

A dying New York writer still grieving over the death of her artist lover prepares for a performance that could be the capstone of her career in Jessica Hagedorn’s novel, Toxicology. Filled with lively details of the gentrification (and many temptations) of her West Village neighborhood, this novel also makes readers think about risk. What is the cost of trying to make art versus giving up a dream? Does the possibility of success make up for the vulnerability of living and working as an undocumented worker? Is marrying and raising a child really the safest route for women? Books like this one leave readers in love with their worlds and thinking about the deeper philosophical questions the author raises. –Karen

 

Funeral for a Dog by Thomas Pletzinger (Norton)

(Available March 28, 2011)

Funeral for a Dog is a puzzle, a slowly unraveling mystery that my brain kept worrying over even after I’d closed the last page. Daniel Mandelkern is an ethnologist working as a journalist for an uncompromising editor—his wife. When she sends him on assignment to profile Dirk Svensson, an elusive children’s author who lives alone but for a three-legged dog, Mandelkern begrudgingly ventures off, suspecting ulterior motives. But when he uncovers Svensson’s manuscript detailing an entangled liaison, Mandelkern can’t help but dive into the mystery. This is a wonderfully paced and plotted novel that will appeal to fans of David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami. –Leighanne

 

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt (Dial)

(Available February 8, 2011)

It is one week before Winston Churchill leaves Parliament, and he is plagued by a strange malevolent presence–an enormous black dog. In London, a young widow named Esther greets a prospective lodger, and there stands Black Pat, this same frightening creature. Possessing an irresistible wit and devious logic, he’s soon installed in Esther’s house and life. When Esther is assigned to take dictation for Churchill’s resignation speech, there is a revelation of their shared burden. Churchill, the powerful statesman, has learned to coexist with this furry, slobbering, confounding manifestation of depression, but Esther’s engagement with life and love is on hold.

This marvelously inventive first novel portrays a uniquely menacing villain, and those who rally against him, with humor and profound originality. –Erica

 

West of Here by Jonathan Evison (Algonquin)

Evison’s new novel is a panoramic homage to the people, climates, and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. Set in Port Bonita, an imaginary town on the Olympic Peninsula, West of Here contains story lines like rivers that rush forward with astonishing momentum and force. A masterful meditation on time, history, and people, it moves and crashes like rapids—letting us up for air in the distant past of settlers, native wisdom, and horse drawn carriages, and towing us forward until we emerge in the present, working in factories and eating at KFC—until finally we are flung over the waterfall of time where the past and present collide with brilliant clarity. –Candra

 

Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai, trans. by George Szirtes (Knopf)

(Available February 22, 2011)

This novel is so beautiful and complex. Set in Hungary between the wars, it is simultaneously an exploration of marriages and human relationships, the classes and class struggles, the nature of art and the nature of war, and the ways in which we survive it all. Márai is a master writer, and through four independent but deeply enmeshed narratives he deftly and beautifully depicts the lives of five individuals, drawing the reader in close with stylistic care. Each story is told in the first person to a silent listener, giving us an intimate look into the hearts, minds, and lives of his exquisitely drawn characters. –Candra

 

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories by Charles Baxter (Pantheon)

For fans of Charles Baxter, this collection of new and previously published short stories embodies all that we’ve come to expect from Baxter: lovely writing, sharp dialogue, themes of isolation, Midwestern locales, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. The beauty of short stories is that you can savor them over time, like a literary dessert before bed each night. My favorites in this collection? The title story and “Horace and Margaret’s Fifty-second,” although each and every story flows and resonates with Baxter’s amazing talent. –Hilary

 

Conquered City by Victor Serge, trans. by Richard Greeman (New York Review of Books)

Written in the 1930s, Serge’s novel tells the story of St. Petersburg circa 1920, as the recently victorious Communists try to maintain control of a populace threatened from inside by hunger and desperation, and threatened from outside by the advancing White Army. The story passes back and forth through the city, bringing to life the motivations and struggles of the various characters, many of whom end up in opposition to one another. Serge’s attention to the sacrifices and courage necessary to create revolution is matched by his insistence on honoring the truth. He writes bravely of hope, but also of devastation. –Casey O.

 

We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The Vikings are synonymous with prodigious seafaring, yet what became of the Scandinavian passion for the open sea once those fearsome long-ships ceased to ride the waves? Can it be that to this day stalwart Norsemen brave the icy seas seeking excitement and renown? The hailing port of this novel is the Danish town of Marstal, where the cemeteries are filled with women and children. The men are rugged sailors, and are mostly entombed in watery graves. This is a tremendous epic that spans generations, circumnavigates the globe, and brings the adventure and tradition of the Norse Saga into the Modern Era. –Jamil

 

The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon)

On a seemingly normal day, a mysterious worldwide phenomenon, referred to as “The Illumination,” occurs. Suddenly, every person’s suffering is made visible. Pain is manifested as radiant light pouring from the wounds of the injured, glowing from an arthritic knee, sparking the air around the heartbroken. In a series of linked vignettes, a journal containing love notes written by a man for his deceased wife passes from character to character, touching their lives in a myriad of ways. Brockmeier has written a dazzling and powerful tale about the way in which our common suffering informs, names, and connects us. –Laurie

 

Life on Sandpaper by Yoram Kaniuk, trans. by Anthony Berris (Dalkey Archive)

Part of the Hebrew Literature Series, Kaniuk’s “fictional autobiography” takes place in the prosperous creativity of 1950s New York. Kaniuk arrives in America, perhaps a bit shell-shocked after being wounded in Israel’s 1948 war, and swan dives into a dizzying collision of worlds: post-war Europe and America, Israel, jazz, visual art, poets and novelists, New York’s Harlem scene, and the Yiddish culture of the Lower East Side. The narrative is quick and direct. The reader is helplessly pulled through by this magnetic, first person narrator who is easily unapologetic in his dysfunction. But the pay-off is spellbinding. A miraculous mixture of escapism and confrontation, Life on Sandpaper is a rich view of a small portion of one man’s journey. –Shannon

 

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, trans. by Rachel Wilson-Broyles (Knopf)

(Available March 1, 2011)

Structured as emails between Jonas, the Swedish-born son of a Tunisian émigré named Abbas and Abbas’s long lost best friend, Kadir, Montecore immediately endears its reader with its humor and linguistic bandying. Kadir urges Jonas to write the story of Abbas, and his rise to fame. But soon the two come to verbal blows about truth and memory, identity and betrayal. The author takes the book’s title from the white tiger that attacked Roy of Siegfried & Roy and by doing so, lets us know that this is about power, role-playing and the intimate choices made in defining oneself. Montecore is both a serious and witty personal narrative, and a sober but provocative social indictment. Ultimately, it is big in heart. –Shannon

 

The Empty Family: Stories by Colm Tóibín (Scribner)

In this beautiful collection of short stories, Colm Tóibín proves himself to be the master. The stories represent various time periods, but the common thread between them is that they all reveal the inner lives of the characters. I was captured from the very first story, “Silence,” a story based on a Henry James journal entry in which Lady Gregory is the central character. The story “Two Women” presents an arrogant and solitary set designer who returns to native Ireland to work on a film, which brings back memories of an affair that was the central passion of her life. These are just two of the excellent stories in this collection. Tóibín is a writer to be treasured. –Greg

 

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House)

(Available March 8, 2011)

Téa Obreht has written a fabulous, wondrous book, and—perhaps unusual to say of a genuinely artful novel—a wise one. Set first in a present-time era of Balkan strife and war, it’s a time-traveled and truly timeless tale. There is war, displacement and ruin. Making sense of it is what Natalia, the young doctor at the center of this heartfelt book, is doing, even as she tends to the pain and travails of others. By way of this, she also relates her late doctor grandfather’s story, sending the reader into a past that feels palpably present. It becomes a mystery of the deepest kind, of life and death, faith and betrayal, with something of a larger power looming or hovering nearby. The sensibility of the narrative voice is old-souled, incredibly assured. A one-of-a-kind debut. –Rick

 

The Last Brother by Natacha Appanah, trans. by Geoffrey Strachan (Graywolf)

This is one of the most beautiful, contained portrayals of devastating loss and profound longing that this reader has ever encountered. An older man gives voice and remembrance to his younger self, bringing to vivid life a childhood marked by brutality, separation, and death, but also cunning, connection, and survival. It’s based on a historical incident—a ship of captured Jewish exiles imprisoned on the island of Mauritius during World War II. With the lightest of touches, the author movingly conveys a child discovering his own mysteries, then navigating those of a baffling, larger world. –Rick

 

Non-Fiction

Your Farm in the City: An Urban-Dweller’s Guide to Growing Food and Raising Animals by Lisa Taylor and the gardeners of Seattle Tilth (Black Dog & Leventhal)

(Available February 23, 2011)

An exceptional new handbook for anyone who wants to become an urban farmer, this book includes everything you need to know about raising farm animals and growing food on your little plot of land. Taylor uses farmer’s wisdom and city savvy to cover all the basics and all the details. Complete with illustrations, maps to help you set up your space efficiently, and charts to clarify and simplify your reading, this is the most comprehensive book I’ve seen, and if you live in Seattle you won’t find a guide more accurate for your specific needs and concerns because the authors of this book are the local experts! –Candra

 

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House)

(Available March 1, 2011)

Foodies, rejoice! Gabrielle Hamilton, chef and owner of the highly acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, has served up one deliciously riveting memoir. Beginning with childhood memories of her set designer father’s elaborate goat roasts, Hamilton takes us on a rollicking ride through the rocky shoals of adolescence, a solo trek through Europe (where her memory of a simple Grecian meal informs her future restaurant’s vision), a stint as a kid’s camp cook, seduction via homemade ravioli by an Italian man who becomes her husband, and summers in Italy with her new Italian family. This is a first rate tale of a food lover’s journey. –Laurie

 

Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors (Ecco)

(Available April 1, 2011)

Between April and August for the past eight years, Philip Connors has been a fire-watcher in the remote New Mexican wilderness of Gila National Forest. Like Kerouac, Snyder and Abbey before him, Connors experiences and observes a vast array of raw nature from his perch high above the forest floor. As Fire Season tracks the changing Gila life cycle, the reader is educated about the evolution of wilderness management and the constant challenge of being responsible stewards of this forest tinder box. These field notes will leave you yearning for the solitude required to live and reflect in such a lucid fashion. –Jamie

 

The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda by Peter L. Bergen (Free Press)

CNN National Security Analyst Peter L. Bergen’s book is essential reading for those who want a thorough analysis of the U.S. involvement in the “war on terror.” He does a great job of giving the reader a revealing portrait of Osama bin Laden, the development of al-Qaeda, U.S. counter-terrorism and use of torture, the misguided sideshow of Iraq, and the ongoing “longest war” in Afghanistan. One might not like some of Bergen’s conclusions, but one will come away with a thorough understanding of this war without end. Bergen suggests elsewhere that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will be much like South Korea–a sobering thought. –Greg

 

Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III (Norton)

(Available February 28, 2011)

One of fiction’s greatest dynasties unfolds on the pages of Andre Dubus III’s memoir, Townie. A scrawny kid from mill towns on the Merrimack, Dubus manages to develop the formidable physique of a fighter through determination to defend himself, his family, and his friends. Seemingly trapped in a trajectory of love culled from violence born of love, he turns his determination toward writing and discovers, in a redemptive and potent narrative, the true quality of masculinity amidst a transformed love and admiration for his noteworthy namesake and father. –Dave

 

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx (Scribner)

The landscape is breathtaking. The history is rich. The house is a mess. Annie Proulx’s memoir of constructing a home on a remote patch of Wyoming prairie trembles between subjects of natural history, ancestry, geography, and home improvement as she attempts to adequately describe her incredible surroundings. From the moment she lays eyes on the land she refers to affectionately as Bird Cloud, Proulx, whose fiction and attention ceaselessly capture the beauty of a landscape, watches her notions of residential perfection crumble in execution, as though Bird Cloud itself stands as a testament to nature’s singular beauty, unmatched by even as deft a craft as Proulx’s.  –Dave

 

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (Riverhead)

(Available March 22, 2011)

There is nothing funny about the colonization of a South Pacific archipelago. People died, diseases spread, ancient traditions and artifacts were damaged or lost altogether. Yet Vowell, arguably one of American history’s most popular commentators, still manages to put me in stitches as she captures uptight New England missionary attempts to Christianize the naked Hawaiian nation, right through its eventual installment into American statehood.

Vowell favors humor, both dark and dry, to recount the pitfalls and culture clash of Manifest Destiny. I only regret she didn’t teach every history course I almost dropped. –Dave

 

Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (Bloomsbury)

(Available February 15, 2011)

The moment in question is February 23, 1981–bullets fly through the air in the Spanish Parliament during an attempted military coup. Three men refuse to take cover and remain upright as they face the gunfire. With a novelist’s eye for truth and meaningful symmetry, Cercas structures his broad non-fictional narrative around the film footage of the coup and examines the histories and motivations that lay behind these gestures of apparent courage. Along with exhaustive research, he pays close attention to the complex human elements of politics as he illuminates the larger moment of Spain’s fragile and contested transition from fascism to democracy. –Casey O.

 

The Last Jew of Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory 1942-1943 by Chil Rajchman, trans. by Solon Beinfeld (Pegasus)

Treblinka, a Nazi death camp in eastern Poland where nearly eight hundred thousand Jews were killed, is a name that remains more obscure than other Nazi camps because there were so few survivors. The only work at the camp involved keeping the machinery of death functioning, and Rajchman endured these tasks for a year before participating in the Treblinka workers revolt, after which he escaped. He wrote this harrowing account in 1945 to record what he had witnessed, and for years it remained unpublished. Available now in English for the first time, it is as painful as it is important. –Casey O.

 

The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson (Bloomsbury)

(Available March 15, 2011)

The argument is that morality is a biological evolution rather than a learned social idea—an evolution that was selected long ago—meaning that we aren’t the only species capable of moral reasoning. The reader is introduced to dolphins who respect the catches of other dolphins, vampire bats who share regurgitated blood with deserving fellow bats, and egalitarian female lions who hunt cooperatively. Throughout the book, the author employs Melville’s Starbuck and Ahab to illustrate the division in our view of animals: are they commodities or thinking creatures? The Moral Lives of Animals is an intelligent appeal to reconsider the way we think about animals. –Pamela

 

Young Adults & Children

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (Viking)

(Available April 14, 2011)

In the wake of many young adult books that feature kids with magical powers, Okorafor’s voice is a refreshing standout. Sunny is an American-born child of Nigerians who have moved back home to West Africa. She is unique in many ways, one of them being she is an “Akata,” a derogatory term for an American born black. She is also an albino. As if this isn’t enough, she soon learns she is a “leopard person,” someone possessing magical abilities, and is a strong one at that. On a quest to defeat an evil criminal, she is accompanied by Chichi, a sharp-tongued girl who seemingly knows no fear, Orlu, the down-to earth boy with watchful eyes and a warning always at hand, and the care-free African American, Sasha, who Sunny may or may not have a little crush on. Akata Witch is rich in West African spirituality and captivating adventure. –Shannon

 

The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge (Delacorte)

(Available February 22, 2011)

The city of Lovecraft is a rational place, where science and reason are the law of the land, and religion and spirituality are the damned works of heretics. During the day all is well, but at night ghouls stalk the sewers while shapeless monsters writhe inside the stolen skin of unfortunate travelers. And that’s nothing compared to what goes on outside the city’s walls.

It is into this dark countryside that sixteen-year-old Aoife Grayson must venture after she receives a mysterious plea for help from her brother, who may be homicidally insane. Burdened with a haunted past and a blood disease that could drive her mad, Aoife may find that those few people who are trying to help her are more dangerous than those trying to kill her. –Rich

 

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens (Knopf)

(Available April 5, 2011)

Ten years ago, Kate, Michael, and Emma were spirited away from their parents in order to protect them from an unknown evil. Moved from one orphanage to the next, the siblings survived by helping one another and holding out hope that one day their parents would come for them. Now, after moving to an orphanage in a remote village in upstate New York, the siblings meet the enigmatic Dr. Pym and come face to face with the stunning secret that has followed them for the last decade. A wonderful mix of humor and magic, Stephens’s debut will thrill fantasy fans of all ages. –Casey S.

 

World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky, illus. by Frank Stockton (Workman)

(Available April 1, 2011)

Mark Kurlansky has utilized his thorough research skills to create a book that all ages can read, enjoy, and benefit from. World Without Fish is a sobering yet creative and comprehensive account of the current threat facing fish and mammals. This is a great book for the whole family–the writing is straightforward yet gentle, and there are cartoons, illustrations, and photos. Kurlansky covers everything one needs to know to get a full understanding of the dangers our oceans face: over-fishing, by-catch risks, global warming effects, far-reaching impacts of extinction, the positive repercussions of sustainable fishing, and more. Terms are defined, and cause and effect are clearly and simply explained. It’s a tough subject, but an important one, and this is the book that will educate your whole family. –Hilary

 

Lost & Found: Three by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine)

(Available April 1, 2011)

Lost & Found is an extraordinary collection of three thematically related and thought provoking stories beautifully illustrated and told by Shaun Tan. In “The Red Tree,” a girl finds hope and beauty in a world of darkness and despair. “The Lost Thing” journals a boy’s unique experience as he helps a strange alien creature find belonging and happiness. And “The Rabbits” tells the fate of an old world lost at the arrival of a new invading species. These imaginative stories are movingly narrated and exquisitely presented, creating a weird and wonderful experience for all ages. –David

 

I’m Not by Pam Smallcomb, illus. by Robert Weinstock (Schwartz & Wade)

If you’re looking for a charming and amusing children’s book about friendship, I’m Not is sure to be a lovely selection. Here we discover two young friends who are as different as can be, yet they celebrate and love their differences. In spite of all the things that they are not, they know exactly what they are: true blue friends. This is a delightful tale filled with witty illustrations, and it deserves to become a classic. –David

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